Upper St. Clair appeared to have lost that winning feeling.

The Panthers found their groove, however, in the final 70 seconds of their game against rival Mt. Lebanon. They scored three unanswered goals to defeat the Blue Devils 13-12 to maintain their winning streak and capture the Section 1-AAA girls lacrosse title.

According to USC head coach Bri Laffey, the outcome came down to the girls’ fortitude.

“Their confidence was shaken, but they knew they could do it,” she said. “They needed to work as a team and get back into the swing of things and get their vibe. Once they found it, it really started to click for them.”

Although the Panthers trailed throughout, starting off down two goals seven minutes into the game, they fought back to tie the contest several times before prevailing on back-to-back goals by Celena Kerr in the final 50 seconds of play.

Kerr finished with a hat trick.

Haley Newton led all scorers with five goals, including the tally that cut USC’s deficit to 12-11 with 1:10 to play.

Bri Lang scored two goals, while Lauren Hart, Lindsay Newton and Hannah Thompson completed the scoring for the Panthers. Thompson and Lindsay Newton each added an assist.

Aria Dietrich made 14 saves in goal. She was backed by the defensive play of Becca Speer, Deirdre Mannix and Caroline Hendrix as well as midfielders Bella Benoit, Nikki Gibbons and Liv Gerlach.

Since Laffey played at USC, the Panthers have had their challenges against the Blue Devils, who have won five district championships since the WPIAL incorporated girls lacrosse in 2004.

But, the Panthers did not enter the May 6 game with trepidation.

“This is one of the first years where I have not feared for them as much because they are very strong when they work together,” Laffey said. “Sometimes we lose it on the field, but then they know what they need to do to get back to it. It’s to find each other. We just keep plugging away — working together. Teamwork and work ethic and there it was.”

An undefeated 10-0 section championship was there for the taking with the victory.

Laffey said winning the section title was something she and the program have been waiting for since she was in high school. A 2007 alum, Laffey played attack for four years and helped Canisius College win its first MAAC conference championship.

“This is exciting. Really thrilling for us,” she said. “We have had an incredible senior class and they have been plugging away at this for four years. So it is really nice to send them away with this win.”

Laffey would love to send her seniors away with one more title. She said her team is definitely a contender for a WPIAL Class AAA Championship.

“They definitely have the ability and the talent to do so,” Laffey said.

The Panthers, indeed, are talented, particularly on offense where Hart leads the attack with 48 goals. The Newtons follow with Haley racking up 43 goals and Lindsay accounting for 31. Lindsay also leads the team in assists followed by Hart and Kerr.

But, the Panthers also have been backed by the play of Katie King, Dannie Gibbons, Kaitlyn Musillo, Gab Martin, Leah Tetrick, Lauren Lieberman, Jocelyn Millorino and Vanessa King.

Even though they are riding a 14-game winning streak into the postseason, the Panthers expect stiff competition in the playoffs, which commences May 13 with first-round action.

Defending WPIAL champions Pine-Richland could be the most formidable foe for all opponents. The Rams also handed USC its lone loss, 8-7, in overtime.

“Honestly,” Laffey said, “I’m not sure if P-R is the team to beat because I have heard good things about different teams from other sections. Pine is always a difficult one and we did lose to them in our first game.”

That outcome, however, serves as an impetus for the Panthers.

“I think a lot of what these girls go off on is wanting to build on what they have worked for so far and come back from their mistakes. They like to learn from each game,” Laffey said.

Laffey said the first playoff game is the immediate target.

“Whoever we see next, we are going to work hard to take down,” she said.

The WPIAL steering committee was scheduled to announce the playoff pairings May 10. The WPIAL championships are set for May 23 at Robert Morris University. The boys finals will be played May 24 at RMU.

Despite their loss, the Lebo girls advanced to the playoffs. The boys team avenged their loss as Lebo defeated USC 16-7 to clinch the section title.

Almanac Sports Editor

An award-winning journalist, Eleanor Bailey has been employed by Observer Publishing Company since 1982. She is the sports editor at The Almanac and a contributor for the Observer-Reporter.

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